Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: Into the Gray Zone

Adrian Owen's new book Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death is a fascinating and surprising book. I was surprised by the evidence discussed in it that some people who are deemed to be in a vegetative state actually experience the world around them, and can even communicate with the aid of advanced technologies and clever techniques. For example, Owen and his team asked seemingly unconscious patients to respond to questions yes or no by thinking about playing a game of tennis or walking through their own house, thoughts that generate distinct patterns of brain activity that can be scanned.

Such evidence of consciousness has both hopeful and disturbing implications--opening possibilities that people though to be irretrievably lost may not be so, and may have a heightened prospect of recovery; while also raising concerns about previously unsuspected suffering. Here we have both cutting-edge science and clinical ramifications that may profoundly impact people's lives. Owen tells a remarkably personal story about his work and the people he's met. A key figure in the book is Maureen, his onetime girlfriend, who pressed him to focus his science on helping people--and who later had an accident that left her in a vegetative state.

Into the Gray Zone also edges into philosophical and speculative territory, about the nature of consciousness and free will, and about how future technologies will peer into the brain or extend its powers. This book offers much to think about, and I expect it will get considerable attention.